Everyone Wants to Be the Next Attorney General of New York

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There’s no lack of interest in the nation’s most prestigious AG gig. Photo: Getty Images/Cultura RF

New York State has 20 million people, approximately 175,000 of whom are active and practicing lawyers, and of which it is fair to presume another 100,000 or so are registered Democrats. Over the last 24 hours, seemingly all of them have floated their names as potential replacements for attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who resigned on Tuesday after The New Yorker reported that he had battered four women he had intimate relationships with and used the power of his office to keep them from coming forward.

But for now, those lawyers, like so many New Yorkers, are likely to find their hopes and dreams thwarted by the New York State Legislature, which will have the first crack at naming Schneiderman’s replacement. Even before Schneiderman resigned — just three hours after the story broke — elected officials with their eye on his job were burning up phone lines to their fundraisers and advisers attempting to game out the contours of a race.

The simplest course of events would be for Democrats in the State Assembly, who thanks to their overwhelming numerical advantage over both chambers are running this rodeo, to appoint someone to the seat. That person would then be endorsed by the Working Families Party Convention in two weeks, the State Democratic Convention in three, and would then go into the September primary with a unified party behind her, crush a few minor opponents, and lead Democrats to a victory up and down the ballot in November.

The only problem with this scenario is that (a) this person doesn’t exist, and (b) we are talking about the Democratic Party in New York. And so a far, the more likely outcome is something resembling a demolition derby.

If it were up to Andrew Cuomo, the Assembly would name his lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul to the job. A former Buffalo-area congresswoman, Hochul fails to set aflame the hearts of the party’s liberal base at a moment when Cuomo is facing a surprisingly fierce challenge from actor Cynthia Nixon, and easing her into the attorney-general spot would give Cuomo a chance to name someone more downstate and less vanilla to be his running mate.

But the state budget is done, depriving Andrew Cuomo of a necessary bargaining chip, and his relationship with the legislature has decreased to the point where they don’t have much reason to do his bidding anyway. Carl Heastie, the Assembly Speaker, publicly stated that his single criteria was that the ultimate choice be “a diverse individual.” Heastie went into a meeting with Assembly Democrats without a candidate in mind though, and then came out of the meeting still without a candidate in mind, a signal that there is no consensus among members of the Assembly.

By many accounts, Letitia James comes the closest. New York City’s public advocate has been elected citywide twice, has good relationships with liberal groups and labor unions, and if she becomes the first African-American woman to hold statewide office, would provide some saving grace out of this entire imbroglio. The Assembly though is split into factions — a large downstate one, suburban members from Long Island and counties north of New York City, and smattering of lawmakers from cities upstate, and Heastie won’t be able to assuage all of them if he pushes for the appointment of James.

“At some point, this just becomes real petty shit,” said one Albany insider advising several would-be contenders. “I am not sure how well Tish plays for marginal Democrats upstate and in the suburbs, but the real issue is that if she is chosen, it means somebody else is not chosen, which is just going to piss off a whole other bunch of people.”

Cuomo has signaled that he would be fine with Barbara Underwood, the 73-year-old acting attorney general, staying on for a while. This is a position shared by the editorial board of the New York Times and the New York Daily News, which have expressed alarm that someone could be chosen by members of the legislature and then, thanks to the powers of incumbency, have an important job like attorney general essentially for life. This was what happened with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who didn’t even make the cut by a review panel called to evaluate candidates after Alan Hevesi’s exit, but who was chosen nonetheless because he was a favorite of then-Speaker Sheldon Silver. DiNapoli has now been in the job for over a decade and never faced a primary challenge.

But the chance to put a loyalist in the job is likely too tempting for Heastie and the Assembly Democrats to pass up, particularly when one considers the risk of what an ambitious, curious, and independent attorney general might unearth in Albany. According to an Albany source, the Assembly hopes to have anyone interested formally submit their name by the end of this week. If the Assembly can’t agree on an attorney general, they may appoint a placeholder to have the job until the end of the year.

If they do that, or if they keep Underwood in place, or if they appoint some loyalist who doesn’t have the mojo to clear the statewide field, expect a statewide Democratic primary as wild and woolly as any since the legendary Mario Cuomo–Ed Koch governor’s race in 1982. New York’s is perhaps the most revered AG’s office in the country, and contains powers that can grow as large as the person in charge wants them to be. It is a license to take on Wall Street, corporate America, real estate, the media, and whatever other power needs checking. With Donald Trump in the White House, the possibilities are limitless. Which is why every Democratic attorney from Bellport to Buffalo has expressed interest.

There isn’t enough battery power on earth to list them all here, but the front-runners appear to be James; Long Island congresswoman Kathleen Rice (who has said she is all but certain to run, even though Democratic leaders in Washington may attempt to talk her out of it for fear of creating an open swing seat in Congress); Queens state senator Mike Gianaris; Long Island senator Todd Kaminsky; and Cuomo’s 2014 gubernatorial foe Zephyr Teachout. Former Manhattan council member Dan Garodnick is taking a look, as is former top Cuomo aide Ben Lawsky, deputy mayor Alicia Glen, and former Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who seriously considered running for governor until Cynthia Nixon arrived on the scene. One intriguing possibility is Maya Wiley, an MSNBC analyst, civil-rights activist, and former head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who in an interview with me yesterday sounded very much like a candidate. “We need an attorney general that is going to continue to be extremely attentive to vulnerable residents of New York State,” she said. “We have to elect people of strong moral character who will follow the law and not seek to abuse the office or its power.”

The real upsetter of the entire apple cart, however, currently has a gig hosting a popular podcast and teaching at NYU. If former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara gets in, all bets are off. The pushback would be ferocious from Cuomo and from Albany lawmakers, who view Bharara not only as a grandstander but also as someone who could make their lives incredibly uncomfortable were he to become the state’s top law-enforcement officer. There remains some doubt as to whether Bharara could raise the money required for a run, and if he has the stomach for the nonstop campaigning that would be required to acquire the gig. Albany insiders tend to think of Bharara as a product of the easily seduced media, but still, conceded one, “he is the white knight in the race. He would be in a league of his own.”

But the Democratic Party Convention is in three weeks, and the primary is only four months away, meaning any candidate has to have been likely laying the groundwork already, and be able to raise $5 million to $10 million by September.

Cuomo is already locked into a high-profile primary in a year when the Democratic electorate is spoiling for a fight — add a jump ball of an attorney-general race, and it seems likely that some comer could set sights on DiNapoli, too. Get ready for an overheated political summer in New York State.

Everyone Wants to Be the Next Attorney General of New York